Can You Land an IT Job If You’re Self-Taught?

Opinion

The path to a successful career used to be so straightforward. You’d graduate high school, go to college, earn your undergraduate and maybe even your graduate degree, then hit the job market for a full-time job. Employers knew exactly what they were looking for: candidates with degrees from reputable colleges who could demonstrate a significant amount of additional experience and relevant extracurricular activities.

But things have changed dramatically.

Crippling Student Debt

Getting a degree has become financially crippling, as Jeffrey Sparshott points out in his Wall Street Journal article, “Congratulations, Class of 2015. You’re the Most Indebted Ever (For Now).”

The average debt for a graduating student has almost tripled in the past 20 years, from approximately $12,000 in 1995 to over $35,000 in 2015. In the past five years alone, it’s increased by approximately $9,000.

These numbers are staggering, but there’s even more bad news. Though there have been a number of proposed bills to reduce student debt, none have gained enough support to prompt policy change. And that means there’s no relief on the horizon.

For millions of Millennials, student debt means they can’t make the purchases associated with financial independence, such as car loans and mortgages. Many postpone getting married or entering into a civil partnership. Some even have to move back in with their parents after graduating—the so-called Boomerangers.

Knowing all of this, it’s only logical that many young people want to avoid incurring crippling debt. An obvious way to do this for those who want an IT career is to forego college and instead teach yourself how to code. But is this realistic in terms of acquiring the right skills? And how will a lack of a degree impact your career prospects?

Can I Acquire the Right Skills?

That’s entirely up to you.

There’s no lack of top-notch resources to learn coding. Think of platforms like edX, founded by MIT and Harvard University; GitHub, which offers content to learn more than 80 programming languages; lynda.com, where you can take online courses in Web and mobile development; and of course, a wide variety of books for practically every programming language and type of Web application.

There are two main concerns when it comes to teaching yourself:

First, you need to select the right things to learn. Information technology evolves at a rapid rate. That means you should acquire the basic skills on which to build further expertise, then concentrate on branching out into the areas that interest you most and for which you have the most aptitude. And, to be frank, being a self-taught programmer gives you more flexibility in this area than studying for a college degree, since you can determine what’s needed based on current demand without having to follow a predetermined curriculum to meet graduation requirements.

Second, you have to progress to a level that can realistically be considered professional. This is perhaps the most difficult part of being self-taught. There are 14-year-old wiz kids out there who have 30-year-old programmers scratching their heads trying to keep up. Like any profession, how good you are depends on ambition and the willingness to constantly evolve your career and skillsets. Technology is ever changing, and a self-taught programmer can become in-demand by employers simply by keeping pace with the latest programming languages and concepts.

To reach a satisfactory level of proficiency, self-taught programmers also need to take on increasingly challenging projects. And though it might be tempting to stick with courseware exercises, you’re best advised to work with actual clients, for three reasons. First, it’s challenging. Second, it trains you to work in a professional setting. And third, it allows you to start building up a portfolio and reference list as soon as possible.

How Will a Lack of a Degree Impact My Career Prospects?

In his TechCrunch article “Unlocking Trapped Engineers,” Vivek Ravisankar points out that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be a shortage of one million computer science professionals by 2020. He also points out that this projection is based on professionals with a degree in computer science or a related field. Yet research presented in the article shows that a college degree isn’t a determining factor when it comes to a career in IT:

  • 59.8 percent of professionals with job titles related to software engineer, computer scientist or programmer didn’t have a related college degree.
  • 36 percent of all IT professionals don’t have any college degree.
  • 40 percent of coders are self-taught.

These statistics clearly demonstrate that a degree in computer science or a related field isn’t a prerequisite to enter the field as a professional.

Unfortunately though, not all employers are ready to acknowledge the value of self-taught professionals, even if they have demonstrable skills and experience. Yet, considering the growing gap between college graduates and job openings, it’s likely that the most forward-looking employers will adapt their talent strategies to include self-taught coders.

Finally, once you’ve got your foot in the door, what will your advancement prospects be?

Well, that depends in large part on you. You should keep in mind that you’ll always be in competition with other skilled professionals, some of whom will have a degree. So you’ll have to position yourself for success. Get a mentor who can help you map out your career. Volunteer for challenging, high profile projects. Always go the extra mile. Continue educating yourself and taking on extracurricular projects. Maintain a personal website that contains your portfolio, as well as any writing you’ve done professionally. And remember to network, network, network.

In conclusion, yes, you can have a successful IT career if you’re self-taught. You just need to be realistic in terms of acquiring the right qualifications and experience, and remember that when you’ve landed your first job, you have to keep proving how you add value to the company in order to advance.

Richard Wang is an entrepreneur and CEO of Coding Dojo , a 14-week coding bootcamp with campuses in Seattle, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and Dallas (March 2016). Follow @codingdojo

Trending on Xconomy